Drug addicted geniuses? Oh, it’s possible. In fact, upon researching the topic it seems more possible to find a genius who has struggled with a dependency at one point in their life than one who is above the influence. Warning: Do not try any of this at home.
Dr. William Stewart Halstead (1852-1922)
A man ahead of his time, the indisputable genius known as the Father of Modern Surgery revolutionized the medical world as we know it. He was the creator of the life-saving breast cancer procedure known as the mastectomy, the concept of rubber gloves in the operation room and cocaine as a stable and practical anesthesia.
Well, that last one didn’t really prove to be Halsted’s smartest idea, but even geniuses can’t say no to the blow. After an intense, sea-faring intervention by his friend and co-founder of the John Hopkins Medical School, Dr. William Henry Welch, the Father rediscovered some self-control. Some. He was able to moderate his cocaine usage by scheduling morphine doses around his surgeries and saving the White Lady for summer vacation. Smart guy. â€¨
Dr. Sigmund Freud (1856-1939)
Sex, sons sexually obsessed with their mothers, oral fixations, penises…to the Father of Psychoanalysis, these subjects are nothing to coke, um, joke about. Dr. Sigmund Freud is renowned for many subconscious-penetrating ideas, such as the above mentioned Oedipus Complex and the oral, anal and phallic stages in the developmental period of a child. He also thought cocaine in moderate amounts on a regular basis wouldn’t result in addiction. All it did was help ease his depression, eradicate his stomach aches, and even make him more appealing to his lover’s parents. In fact, he was so non-addicted that he wrote a whole technical paper on cocaine called, translated, On Cocaine. Definitely not a public service announcement. â€¨
Kurt Cobain (1967-1994)
A mastermind of the post-punk music scene, Kurt Cobain is the man responsible for the ripped jeans, angst and flannel flapping in the wind of the ’90s. This grunge movement grew out of Cobain’s bipolar disorder, messy childhood and an entire discography of cryptic songs about himself. Crippled by overwhelming success, he found himself looking for Love in all the wrong places. Typical Kurt, finding love in the female version of himself. He ended worse than he began at the age of 27 with an inescapable excruciating guilt and a numb approach to life. Oh, and he did heroin a lot, too.
Philip K. Dick (1928-1982)
Known for stories which feature incredibly drug-addicted individuals, Philip K. Dick created countless thousands of pages of Science Fiction gold with a pen propelled by his own experiences. Posthumously famous, this master of the art of sci-fi wrote from his own reality and that of those around him riddled with amphetamines and psychedelic drugs. It only makes sense that his work would heavily inspire the films Blade Runner, Minority Report and A Scanner, Darkly. The drugs helped keep life interesting for him as his futuristic hallucinogenic writing proves, something his total of five wives couldn’t do for a man struggling between realities. â€¨
Ken Kesey (1956-2001)
If Albert Hofmann was the Father of LSD, Ken Kesey was the face. A key proponent in the acid movement which swept the ’60s, this genius of language felt a need for a serious upgrade from the traditional marijuana haze surrounding his world. Upon the publishing of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, a masterpiece of social commentary, Kesey found abrupt recognition, monetary success and even acquired a following. Literally, this group known as the band of Merry Pranksters followed him when he moved to a remote California location, and then again when he took a road “trip” across the country in an embellished school bus. He got a little Charles Manson-y when he decided to perform “Acid Tests” on his followers, sometimes without their knowledge of imbibing the substance. But, Kesey was the infallible leader, only doing this to help his friends properly confront their fears. Properly meaning on LSD. His antics peaked in the middle of his life when the government outlawed LSD whereupon he faked his suicide by leaving a short note and attempting to flee to Mexico. Spoiler Alert! The predominately biographical novel by Tom Woolfe,The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, goes into much further detail. Much further.
Charlie “Yardbird” Parker (1920-1955)
A perfect example of a child prodigy, Charlie “Yardbird” Parker picked up his first saxophone at eleven and sent jazz music into a realm of unpredictability and fervor never before seen. Four short years later, his opiate addiction began. His seemingly non-rhythmic, improvisational style enchanted only a few at first, but as he wandered through the venues of New York City, he began to find his niche.
With his partner Dizzy Gillespie, the now classically erratic and quick form of jazz dubbed “bebop” was birthed and a fan base born out of that. Despite the success, heroin remained a constant in Yardbird’s life. It was not uncommon for Parker to nod off during sets in true heroin-addict fashion, sometimes missing performances altogether. Or setting fire to hotel rooms and traipsing nude through the lobbies. He deteriorated by the day, leading the coroner to believe he was at least sixty years old when he died. He was thirty-four.
Aaron Sorkin (1961-PRESENT)
The West Wing, A Few Good Men, Charlie Wilsons War, the recently released film entitled The Social Network; it’s hard to believe a man with a background as rocky as Aaron Sorkins’ managed to write such compelling scripts in his professional life. Sorkin is a tried and true multi-tasking genius juggling a sudden writing career, a wife, a crack-cocaine addiction which was seemingly left in the ’90s, and…a secret. It wasn’t until a Burbank airport security scan in 2001 opened that proverbial closet door when out fell a neatly packed supply of mushrooms and crack cocaine. Rehab, as Sorkin predicted, did not work for him. He revealed the existence of his secret wifeless, drug-infested trips back and forth from his home in LA to party central in Vegas for single nights three times a year. While not indulging to the degree of his former heavily addicted self, Sorkin says “…the hardest thing I do every day is not take cocaine.” A concrete statement of a man in constant remission. â€¨
Howard Hughes (1905-1976)
A master of aviation, a pioneer in film direction, a billionaire, and The World’s Greatest Womanizer; this multi-faceted man radiated brilliance. Orphaned at the age of seventeen, Howard Hughes’ eccentric personality was already in full bloom from bipolar disorder to OCD. Before his crazy fully took off, he directed the film The Hell’s Angels (1930) which was nominated for an Academy Award, created the Hughes Aircraft Company in 1932, and even landed Katharine Hepburn as a frequent booty call. He wound up being coerced into taking over the Trans World Airlines where he would eventually find it crumbling beneath him. This led him to finding new ways to “fly”. Barely leaving his reclining chair, Hughes would pop anything from codeine to 10 mg Valium pills all while watching his favorite movies on repeat with tissue boxes on his feet. It wasn’t uncommon for him to drink his own urine and leave his urine-colored six inch long nails intact. At this point it is safe to say he has earned his merit badge for drug addiction. The last fifteen years of his life, he would continue to deteriorate as a paranoid-schizophrenic hermit (due to brain damage from multiple plane crashes) leading the coroner to identify his unfamiliar form by his fingerprints. Hopefully they clipped those nails first. â€¨
Lil’ Wayne (1982-PRESENT)
Extremely well known for many, many things, Lil’ Wayne is best recognized donning a fresh white tee and matching Styrofoam cup. Inside the cup? Sizzurp! For anyone unfamiliar with this lyrical genius’ drug of choice, the active ingredients of Sizzurp combine Promethazine with codeine for one truly addictive drink.
Though known to produce lethargy and a prominent sedative effect, sizzurp did anything but sing lullabies to Wayne’s career. Famous for never writing any of his lyrics down, Lil’ Wayne has dominated the rap world with his versatile vocal flow and his complex expressive rhymes. He has discussed his addiction in countless interviews, such as the must see Katie Couric special, and has reiterated his feelings on the subject. Best summing this up is his statement: “I don’t care if it was heroin in my cup…it’s my cup. Fuck you!”
Putting aside the absurdity of heroin inside an icy Styrofoam cup, Wayne clearly was set in his addictive ways. Until 2009, when an eight month jail sentence due to gun possession forced him into withdraw, though prior to his entry into prison, he claimed to have quit the Purple Drink during the previous year. However true that may be, he certainly quit during the sentence. But he will never let his one true love go: marijuana. He tells Rolling Stone: “I smoke weed all day. I’m a very successful addict. And a smart one. And a very charismatic one.” A self-proclaimed genius and addict, in one single sentence he sums himself up without leaving much out. And he didn’t even have to write it down.
Mitch Hedberg (1968-2005)
A sage of exquisite speculations, delivery in language and tone, and a strangely charismatic stage presence, Mitch Hedberg practically breathed hilarity. The content of his often one sentence musings on life is just so absurd yet insightful, so simple yet so layered, they can only be born of the mind of a truly Bona Fide genius. And a drug addict. Using himself as the subject for nearly every joke, it is clear that Hedberg had a preoccupation with himself, and though narcissism was the driving force, it certainly wasn’t the loving type. At the height of his career just a year before his death in 2004, a “performance” gives his fans an up-close look into the mind of a genius on drugs. His debilitating stage fright certainly fueled his unusual habits during his acts, namely wearing sunglasses inside and getting so fucked up he forgets all his jokes, falls on the ground, and winds up making-out with a female front row audience members. A man of few words, each of his jokes spoke volumes about the dude who could make anyone laugh. The ultimate epitaph for Mitch Hedberg? “I’m a heroine addict. I need to have sex with women who have saved somebody’s life.” â€¨
Albert Hofmann (1906-2008)
On April 19, 1943, Albert Hofmann became a father. A father of something he would come to call his “problem child.” He became…the Father of LSD. This date became known as “Bicycle Day” after Hofmann’s trippy bike ride home from trying his creation for the first time. LSD was no longer a pipe dream (or was it?). Hidden from the public at first, the drug did not become the cultural icon it is today for some twenty years after its birth. Once the ’60s hit, minds were being exploded by the swirly, vividly colored trips. But even acid gets old to a genius. After some thirty or so trips, Hofmann says “I know LSD; I don’t need to take it anymore.” Wow. One wonders what could have possibly kept this genius mentally occupied all 102 years of his life. â€¨
Johnny Cash (1932-2003)
All he’d say was: “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash,” and off he would go. The Man in Black had a way about him; a voice like hot gravel, veins pumping lyrics straight from his heart, and a badass image that was so concrete he didn’t even have to do drugs his whole career. Though he was addicted to amphetamines and barbiturates for most of the ’60s, Cash made Country music actually sound good. Johnny struggled with extreme guilt with everything from adultery to ransacking his body with prescription drugs. Naturally, this guilt caused him to take more drugs. Johnny Cash was a deeply religious man, and God was just taking a nap during the ’60s, or something. Legendarily, Johnny Cash descended deep into the Nickajack Cave in 1967 during an intense drug-ridden episode. As he lay down to die deep inside his childhood cave, God came to him and lifted his resolution. Out climbed the true Man in Black, ready to give his life to and empathize with all “the poor and beaten down, livin’ on the hopeless, hungry side of town.”
Lou Reed (1942-PRESENT)
“Heroin, it’s my wife and it’s my life.” This is a direct quote from the song written by Lou Reed entitled “Heroin.” Drug addict, check. He is leather, he is downtown New York City, he is the ’70s. He is timeless. Lou Reed was the head of a strange generation discovering all the crazy things they could do and be all at once. “Take a Walk On the Wild Side”, a classic solo-Lou track, acutely observes the freaks that flood the City streets like spilled coins. He not only joined them together; he became their leader, even after he sobered up in the ’80s. Now he is one of them. Like a true genius who has overcome addiction, this is what Lou Reed is up to these days.
Brian Wilson (1942-PRESENT)
The Father of the Beach Boys, Brian Wilson wasn’t all sunshine and surfing. Yeah, he had a sandbox, but it certainly wasn’t for his kids. Celebrated for creating angelic harmonies with four other groovy dudes –most of them family — Brian Wilson rose to the top before he was even twenty years old. Like many stars who’ve been famous since they were young, Wilson took it out in the form of severe addiction to pretty much everything. Heroin, cocaine, LSD, marijuana, alcohol, cigarettes; even junk food wasn’t safe around him. During his lowest point before the 24-hour therapist Eugene Landy swooped in to father him for much of his adult life, Brian would spend thousands of dollars on drugs almost daily. And the 340 pound man would sit and play in his sandbox. His life is abundant with accomplishment, considering he didn’t start to get clean until 1983.
Billie Holiday (1915-1959)
Finally! A drug addicted female genius. And she did it just as well as the boys. Known as “Lady Day,” Holiday was a survivor of poverty, prostitution, heroin addiction, alcoholism and domestic abuse. Her gorgeous vocals not only sang a song, they sang her song. Frank Sinatra considers her his “greatest single musical influence” and she continually performed with many notable musicians of the time including Teddy Wilson and Lester Young. Much of her success comes posthumously, as her heroin, cocaine and alcohol addictions brought her career to a standstill. After rehab, she was no longer legally allowed to perform in Manhattan clubs serving alcohol. The story follows quite predictably, but in no way diminishes the masterful talent Billie displayed while the law permitted her to do so.